Stunning Damselfly and Dragonfly Photography Slideshow

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Learn how to study, photograph and identify 336 dragonfly and damselfly species with Dennis Paulson's fully illustrated field guide, “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East.” Captured here are a Sweetflag Spreadwing male and Ruby Meadowhawk male.
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Calico Pennant male obelisking: Dragonflies perch in many ways. They can elevate or lower their abdomen with ease, and they can make it perpendicular to the sun’s rays in the morning and evening to warm it maximally or point it directly at the sun at midday (obelisking) to minimize solar radiation falling on them. 
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Rainbow Bluet female with leafhopper: Most dragonflies take small prey, much smaller than themselves. 
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Eastern Pondhawk male with female Variable Dancer: Odonates are all predators in both adult and larval stages. Dragonflies that routinely take large prey are among the most effective biters when captured! 
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Tricolored Heron with male Red Saddlebags: Dragonflies have their good vision and swift and agile flight to protect them from predators, but sometimes it isn’t enough.
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Red Saddlebags female landing: One of the many special things about dragonflies is their superb flight ability. All four wings can be moved independently. 
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Skimming Bluet pair with water mites: Odonates have parasites just like all other animals, but a few types are evident to even the casual naturalist.
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Plains Clubtail copulation: Copulation lasts from a few seconds (some species mate in flight) to several hours in different odonate species.
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Common Green Darner copulation: Where odonates meet to mate has been called the rendezvous. This is usually at the water; however, some species can copulate in midair.
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Metamorphosis and Emergence: The dragonfly larva fixes itself to the substrate.
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Great Spreadwing tandem: Female dragonflies that have mated often have marks on their eyes where the male epiproct has scratched or even punctured the eyes.
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Band-winged Meadowhawk in tandem with Eastern Amberwing: Male odonates attempt to mate with females not of their own species with a fairly high frequency. Apparently, recognition in some groups is not achieved until there is a tandem attempt, and the male and female structures that hook together during tandem do not quite fit.
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Metamorphosis and Emergence: The larva expands its thorax until a split appears.
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Metamorphosis and Emergence: After its cuticle hardens for a while and its muscles become stronger, the larva reaches up and pulls itself out of the exuvia.
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Metamorphosis and Emergence: The larva emerges through the split and hangs backward from the larval skin.
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Northern Bluet male and female emergence: After emerging, the color pattern of a sexually maturing odonate may change over a course of days or weeks or even months as the individual becomes sexually mature and returns to the water.
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Antillean Spreadwing female: Males perch low over water at tiny wooded sinkholes in pineland, often in dense growth where they are hard to see. Both males and females hang out in swampy areas.
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River Jewelwing male: Rarely seen very far from water, both sexes of the River Jewelwing are commonly seen on stream-side vegetation.
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Metamorphosis and Emergence: The skin cast that gets left behind is called an "exuvia" (plural "exuviae").
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Swamp Spreadwing immature male: Males usually perch in sheltered areas in shade, often in tangled vegetation, and are difficult to find.
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Everglades Sprite pair: The Everglades Sprite is a tiny dark damselfly of Peninsular Florida and the Gulf Coast that shows much blue when mature.
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Swamp Spreadwing male: The habitat of the Swamp Spreadwing is in wooded ponds and lakes with abundant emergent vegetation, often where shurbs grow in shallow water; slow streams and bog-margined lakes included.
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Harlequin Darner male: Both sexes perch on tree trunks and commonly land on the clothing of the people who stalk them!
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Gray Petaltail male: These are considered the most primitive living odonates. Different authors have placed the Petaltail family at the base of dragonfly evolution.
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Harlequin Darner female: Shallow pools and ditches in swampy areas or sphagnum bog ponds are the ideal habitats for these Darners.
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Pale-green Darner male: This species forages at the forest edge from ground level to well up into the trees at dusk.
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Fawn Darner male: This species cruises around clearings or over water to feed and hang vertically from almost any sort of shaded perch low in woodlands, on cliffs, or under bridges. 
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Black-tipped Darner female: These dragonflies are known to displace and even prey on male Canada and Green-striped Darners when patrolling.
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Regal Darner female: Pairs of Regal Darners are unusual because they mate away from water.
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Regal Darner male: Breeds in open ponds and lakes in wooded areas, roosts in woodland. The Regal Darner commonly hunts over open areas.
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Shadow Darner male: Males fly beats up and down streams and along lake shores, with much hovering while facing shore, even as long as 30 seconds in one spot.
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Tawny Sanddragon male: Tawny Sanddragons like sand-bottomed lakes, usually with clear water and often with a bed of emergent vegetation near shore. Water lilies may also be common.
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Jade Clubtail male: The Jade Clubtail's habitat is near large mud-bottomed lakes, sloughs and canals, also some slow-flowing rivers.
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Zigzag Darner male: Both sexes perch on ground, gravel roads, logs, tree trunks, and other unusually light-colored substrates.
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Green-faced Clubtail female: In rocky rivers you will find the Green-faced Clubtail hovering over water just above riffle, facing the wind and being slowly carried backward until they dart forward and hover in the same place again.
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Clearlake Clubtail female: This species is distinctive because of a very long S9 and narrow and widely separated thoracic stripes.
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Plains Clubtail female: These odonates usually perch flat on leaves when away from water.
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Twin-striped Clubtail pair: This dragonfly likes small sandy streams with little to moderate current in woodland areas.
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Sable Clubtail female: When ovipositing eggs in the water, female Sable Clubtails are often guarded by the males.
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Sable Clubtail male: Sable Clubtails perch on sunlit vegetation overhanging streams or on flat rocks in the shade. They will fly upstream when disturbed.
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Cobra Clubtail male: This dragonfly may hover in a slight breeze and will fly only a few feet above water.
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Zebra Clubtail female: Clean rivers and streams are an important habitat for the Zebra Clubtail.
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Orange Shadowdragon male: Both sexes of the Orange Shadowdragon fly over rivers beginning at dusk or shortly before and continuing at least until completely dark.
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Mantled Baskettail male: Males fly over water on sexual patrol back and forth on a beat as short as 15 feet.
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Slender Baskettail female: The Slender Baskettail is more common in wooded areas than the Mantled Baskettail.
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Mantled Baskettail female: Large hindwing spots on this species should allow for easy identification.
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Painted Skimmer male: Males spend much time perching from waist height to head height over water and chasing others of their species that approach.
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Common Whitetail male: This dragonfly captures small insects that pass by in flight.
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Black Saddlebags pair: This dragonfly prefers shallow open lakes and ponds with much aquatic vegetation. It wanders far and wide away from water.
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Carolina Saddlebags male: This odonate lives in ponds, both marshy and open, and lakes with much submergent vegetation.
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"Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East" is a fully-illustrated field guide by Dennis Paulson.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East(Princeton University Press, 2011) by Dennis Paulson is the first fully illustrated field guide to all 336 dragonfly and damselfly species of eastern North America. With hundreds of color photos and complete species accounts that describe key identification features, distribution, flight season, habitat and natural history, this is the only guide you need in the field. The slideshow in this article’s Image Gallery features 50 of our favorite images from the book, and the following dragonfly photography tips are taken from the book’s introduction.

Damselfly and Dragonfly Photography Tips

Dragonflies and damselflies are wonderful photo subjects. So many of them are brightly colored and interestingly shaped that just sitting still they are photogenic. Many of them perch in the sunshine in conspicuous places, and walking around a wetland will provide photo op after photo op. Dragonfly photographers usually use lenses that are a combination of macro (for relatively close focusing) and telephoto (for magnification, especially of wary dragonflies). I use a 70- to 300-mm zoom lens that has macro capabilities at 300 mm, so I do not have to approach too closely and disturb my subject. I have also taken numerous photos with 400-mm telephoto lenses that focus down to 5 feet. If you are out photographing birds with such a lens, give dragonflies a try. In general, damselflies are easily approached, and they can be photographed with shorter lenses, but dragonflies can be quite wary. For whatever reason, some individuals will be much tamer than others, so just keep trying.

The best photos are taken with cameras on tripods, or at least with image-stabilized lenses, as you can make sure the dragonfly is in sharp focus and can shoot at a slow enough shutter speed to get a good depth of field on the subject and still gather in background light. Dragonflies may perch on flimsy stems, so they blow in the wind as flowers do, but if your subject is on a solid perch, you can often use a slow shutter speed. The alternative is to use a flash with a higher shutter speed. This works equally well in brightly or evenly lit situations, but the powerful flash on the subject means any distant background will be underexposed, even black. You can get around this when using flash by photographing dragonflies with backgrounds close enough to be well lit, but it is much better when they provide a smooth background (a dense bed of sedges all the same color, for example) than a cluttered one (a mass of twigs and leaves). However you do it, you will get better photos with the depth of field provided by a diaphragm opening of f/16 or f/18; f/22 or higher is even better. Otherwise, you are restricted to photos perpendicular to the subject and its wings–directly from the side for damselflies, directly from the top for dragonflies. Some photographers with an artistic bent may prefer subjects in partial focus.

There are really three components of successful dragonfly photography. The first two are science: familiarity with your camera equipment and its capabilities and knowledge of the subject matter. The third is art: taking photos that are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Perusal of the photos in this book will make it clear that the nature of the background is extremely important in photographing odonates. An uncluttered or out-of-focus background always shows the dragonfly or damselfly at its best, but the background can also furnish clues to habitat choice and behavior, so sometimes it will be an integral part of the photo. Few photos are as crisp and easy to interpret as those taken against a blue sky.

Digital photography is clearly becoming the medium for most of us. The biggest advantage of digital is that you can see your results immediately and know whether you have accomplished your photo goals then and there. One of the nicest advantages is being able to download your photos onto your computer and share them with friends and colleagues. Nowadays, a puzzling dragonfly photographed in the field might be identified by an expert at the other end of an e-mail message on the same day. Also, I find keeping track of digital images on the computer far easier than going through a huge slide collection (but many of us will have to do both).

Always, the hardest odonates to photograph are the “fliers,” the ones that perch hanging up and often at some distance from the water. With persistence, by watching many of these dragonflies, you will eventually see one hang up at a place accessible to your stalking. Many of us photograph fliers by catching them and chilling them, but this is necessary only if you have a burning desire for a photo of that species, as posed individuals rarely perch in an entirely natural way. Many photos of fliers in this book are posed, and one of the real challenges will be to get photos of all of them naturally perched.

In fact, we need many more photos of dragonflies and damselflies in general. While searching for photos for this book, I discovered that a few species had not been photographed at all in a natural situation, and in others, no females are represented in photo collections. For variable species, there can never be too many photos. Time after time, I thought I knew the color pattern of a species, only to look at another photo and see unsuspected variation. My descriptions of the species became longer as I looked at more and more photos on the Internet or reexamined my own. A good collection of specimens can tell the story of variation, but only in pattern, not in color.

Much of the behavior of dragonflies, of course, involves flying, and they are much harder to photograph then. I hope that the present generation of camcorder-wielding birders will pay some attention to odonate behavior. Because they are small and quick, they are more difficult to follow with a lens, and thus, their behavior is more difficult to document than that of birds. But it is worth trying!

Featured Damselfly and Dragonfly Images

Visit the Image Gallery for our favorite photographs from Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, or click on one of the titles below to navigate straight to the listed image. 


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson, published by Princeton University Press, 2011.